"Fool me once," the old saying goes, "shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me." During the 1990s, the Clinton administration funneled millions of dollars in aid to the Palestinian Authority and its gangster-in-chief, Yasser Arafat, in the vain hope that the Palestinian leadership would focus on development and reconcile itself to the existence of the state of Israel.
The funds, however, ended up doing no such thing. Fueled in part by American dollars, Arafat and his cronies preserved and strengthened their anti–Israeli animus, all the while entrenching a culture of corruption and cronyism that has crippled progress toward a Palestinian state.
Yet today, the Obama administration is poised to make much the same mistake in post-Arafat "Palestine." During her recent trip to the Middle East, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton pledged a whopping $900 million in U.S. assistance to the Palestinians. A major aim of the funds, according to State Department spokesman Robert Wood, will be to rebuild infrastructure destroyed during the recent three–week war between Israel and the Hamas terrorist group in the Gaza Strip.
There is a hitch, however. Today, the Palestinian Authority is hardly a cohesive, unitary entity. Ever since it managed to seize power in Gaza through a rapid, bloody coup nearly two years ago, Hamas has established what amounts to a separate state there. It would be hard to overstate the effect this development has had on Palestinian politics.
Formally, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas may still be in charge of both the West Bank and Gaza. In practice, however, Arafat's beleaguered heir, now sequestered to the West Bank, has little control over Gaza politics and even less capability to enforce order or disburse aid on its streets.
Which means that, whatever officials in Washington might intend, the Obama administration's new Gaza aid package is likely to turn out to be a financial boon for Hamas, which wields actual physical control over the places the aid is destined to go.
That, in turn, would put the White House on the wrong side of the very federal laws it is charged with upholding. For more than a decade, the State Department has formally defined Hamas as a "foreign terrorist organization." That label, made pursuant to a 1996 law known as the Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act, bars U.S. citizens and companies from providing the group with "material support or resources" that could assist or sustain it. The prohibition goes in spades for the U.S. government and its various agencies.
All of which goes a long way toward explaining why the White House has been so eager in recent weeks to promote the idea of a "unity" government between Hamas and its secular rival, Fatah.
If such a power-sharing arrangement can be reached, it will formalize the fiction that American aid will not end up in Hamas' hands – and that it will be used for development, rather than destruction. Never mind that Hamas has already formally rejected such an arrangement, or the reality that – if a unity government does indeed materialize – Hamas is bound to be a senior partner in it, and may even end up in control of both the Palestinian Authority's politics and its finances.
When Israel launched its military offensive in the Gaza Strip late last year, the objective was clear: to convince the leadership of Hamas that, quite simply, continued terrorism does not pay.
It would be both sad and ironic if America's economic assistance to Gaza in the aftermath of that conflict ended up convincing Hamas that the exact opposite is true.